Food Label Overhaul?>
Be Well

Food Label Overhaul

by John Swartzberg, M.D.

You’ve likely heard that the Nutrition Facts label is getting a facelift. It’s about time, since many people, myself included, find the current label somewhat confusing and often deceptive. The proposed update, announced in March, is the first major revision in 20 years and marks the White House’s continuing efforts to improve the eating habits of Americans and stem the tide of obesity. It is currently undergoing review and awaits final approval. Food manufacturers will then have a couple of years to comply.

In the meantime, here’s a brief roundup of what I like (and don’t like) about the proposed changes. For starters, I was pleased to see that calories will appear in bold and bigger type at the top, making them hard to ignore.

  • More realistic serving sizes. Serving sizes will be updated to reflect what people typically consume. Who, after all, eats just a half-cup of ice cream? (The new serving will be 1 cup.) Manufacturers will also have to declare certain packages (such as 20-ounce soda bottles) as 1 serving (rather than the current 2.5 servings).
  • Bye-bye “calories from fat.” Dropping this line acknowledges that the type of fat is more important than the amount of fat. Not all fats—such as those in nuts—are bad (though all are high in calories and thus should still be consumed in moderation).
  • Hello “added sugars”—finally. The current label does not distinguish between sugars naturally present (such as the sugar in milk and fruit) and sugars added during processing (such as the sugar added to fruit yogurts and breakfast cereals). Added sugars are a source of “empty” calories that contribute to weight gain. In contrast, it’s a lot harder to over-consume naturally occurring sugars—plus, in healthful foods like fruit, those sugars are accompanied by beneficial nutrients.
  • Hello potassium and vitamin D. Potassium is key in maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, while vitamin D is essential for bones and may have a range of other health benefits. Yet most people’s diets fall short in both. Highlighting these nutrients in the new label may encourage people to consume more of them. It may also encourage manufacturers to fortify more foods (hopefully not junk foods, though) with vitamin D, since few foods naturally contain it.

But some things could still use more tweaking. Though the labels will continue to list trans fats, the loophole will likely still exist whereby a product with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can claim to have 0 grams; no amount of trans fat is healthful. Also, the daily sodium limit is being reduced from 2,400 to 2,300 milligrams to reflect the general sodium recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—but most people (including everyone over 50 and all African Americans) should aim for 1,500 milligrams a day. And sorely missing in the proposal is an upper limit for added sugars—the American Heart Association advises no more than 25 grams a day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and no more than 40 grams (10 teaspoons) for men.

Going forward: Overall, the proposed changes are a big leap in the right direction. The next hurdle is getting people to actually use nutrition labels when making purchases (less than half of Americans currently do). Of course, as the Wellness Letter has frequently pointed out, some of the healthiest foods (such as whole fruits and vegetables) are those that come in no packages at all and need no label to tell you how good they are.